Farmers feel they are working against the wind to achieve sustainable growth goals

With Monday’s Food Wise 2017 conference clashing with vital Brexit negotiations, the take-home messages will have to be adjusted according to how the EU-UK divorce affects Ireland.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed teed up the conference with an assertion that this is no time to step back from Ireland’s ambitious 2025 agri-food industry targets, despite some calls for moderation of ambition, in the light of Brexit.

He made the point that targets for 2020 will be achieved well ahead of schedule, and those targets also appeared optimistic, at the time.

He hoped the conference would inspire farmers, processors and Government to re-double their commitment to achieving the Food Wise 2025 vision for the sustainable growth.

That inspiration is needed, with everyone working so hard — and doing so well — but constantly assailed, especially on the environmental challenge of reining in greenhouse gas challenges in farming.

Farming is a tough enough business without being told “the world has to shift consumption away from meat and dairy”; and “the industrial production and overconsumption of meat, milk and eggs in Europe is having a devastating impact on our health, nature and the climate”.

Those two pronouncements this week, respectively from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, will probably get at least as much traction as any reassuring messages from Monday’s Food Wise 2017 conference.

So farmers feel they are working against the wind, and need reassurance.

But there wasn’t much of that from the Dublin conference, with the same dark clouds hovering over farmers also dominating Monday’s event at Croke Park.

In that light, it was welcome that Minister Creed said more must be done to articulate the tremendous contribution farmers are making to management and improvement of the natural environment, and we cannot allow any negative association between the sector and the environment to get traction. He will also lead at least four trade missions in the next year, which is welcomed by the farmers now seeing the benefits of marketing in the form of strong demand for our near-record weekly kills of beef cattle.

A public consultation he announced on the 2020 CAP is of less interest, with farmers facing so many shorter term threats. But at least one of the threats was lifted this week, with Minister Creed’s news that Ireland’s derogation is secured for another four years, albeit with stricter rules, but allowing heavily stocked farmers to exceed 170kg of livestock manure nitrogen per hectare.

That averts a threat which could have hit farming hard next January.

Farmers will appreciate the conference warning from plain-speaking EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, that dairy markets are weak, and farmers increasing milk deliveries in Ireland, France and Germany are not heeding market signals, in contrast to Friesland Campina in Netherlands writing to farmers calling for supply restraint. He called on the industry to manage milk supply.

Pierre Boscou of the European Commission’s message on climate change obligations was palatable too, saying they don’t want to simply scale down food production, because it would lead to carbon leakage, meaning displacement of farming to less carbon-efficient regions.

Instead, the Commission wants better livestock health, feeding and genetics, and soil and land use, areas Ireland is well advanced in.

That leaves Brexit, on which Kerry Group chief executive officer Edmond Scanlon said they were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Unfortunately, that seems the course for prudent farmers also, but with much less resources to fall back on.

It was an eventful week, but farmers had the last word: against the odds, dramatically boosting their incomes this year, and finally seeing benefits of dairy expansion in their pockets, with even cattle finishers seeing an 8% increase in gross margin, all revealed at the Teagasc National Outlook conference on Tuesday.

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